Every corner of the globe was claimed by a Western power. Leading the way were explorers, missionaries, merchants, soldiers, and settlers. The reasons for the success of Western imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s varied and so did the kinds of governments imposed by Western powers on their newly acquired territories.

Vulnerable Non-Western States

While European nations had grown stronger in the 1800s, several older civilizations were in decline. In the Middle East, the once powerful Ottomans faced many challenges from within their diverse empire. Weak rulers in Mughal (MOO gul) India triggered internal unrest with less tolerant policies toward Hindus. In China, Qing (ching) rulers resisted calls for modernization with disastrous consequences.

In West Africa, wars among African peoples and the damaging effects of the slave trade had undermined long-established kingdoms and city-states. Newer African states were not strong enough to resist the Western onslaught. Many Africans lived in small communities with no strong, centralized kingdom to protect them.

Western Advantages

European powers had the advantages of strong economies, well-organized governments, and powerful armies and navies. Superior technology, including riverboats and the telegraph, as well as improved medical knowledge also played a role. The discovery of quinine in 1817 and other new medicines helped Europeans survive deadly tropical diseases such as malaria that had prevented them from exploring tropical regions in Africa.

Photo of a white haired man with a white mustache in a linen suit with a bowtie, seated with papers in hand.

American author Mark Twain was an outspoken critic of both imperialism and the brutal Belgian rule in the Congo. In 1905, he published King Leopold's Soliloquy, which brought international attention to the situation.

Equally important, new weaponry gave Westerners a huge advantage. Advances such as Maxim guns—the earliest machine guns—along with repeating rifles and steam-driven warships were very strong arguments in persuading Africans and Asians to accept Western control.

Finally, Europeans often played rival groups within a region against one another. In India, the British successfully used rivalries between Hindu and Muslim princes to their advantage. In Africa, Europeans encouraged divisions among local rulers to keep them from joining forces against the newcomers.

Some Resist Imperialism

People in Africa and Asia strongly resisted Western expansion. Many people fought the invaders, even though they had no weapons to equal the Maxim gun. Rulers in some areas tried to strengthen their societies against outsiders by reforming their own Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian traditions.

Although European powers defeated almost all the armed resistance, the struggle against imperialism continued. European rule turned many native peoples into forced laborers with no freedom of movement. By the early 1900s, nationalist movements were emerging. Western-educated Africans and Asians used Enlightenment ideas about freedom and liberty to call for an end to colonial rule. Tens of thousands in colonies around the world joined national liberation movements.

Critics at Home

In the West, a small group of anti-imperialists emerged. Some argued that colonialism was a tool of the rich. Others opposed imperialist expansion because they wanted to focus on improving conditions for people in the West rather than imposing change on other cultures. Still others called imperialism immoral. Westerners, they pointed out, were moving toward greater democracy at home but were imposing undemocratic rule on other peoples.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments